With two weeks left in football’s regular season, Sam Houston is honored to have not just one but two players on the official “watch list” for the Jerry Rice Award.
The Jerry Rice Award is presented annually to the top FCS freshman by The Sports Network. Named for the Hall of Fame wide receiver who played in college for Mississippi Valley State and in the NFL for the 49ers, the award is selected by vote of a nationwide committee of sportswriters and broadcasters who cover FCS football.
The two Bearkats up for the honor – defensive lineman P. J. Hall and wide receiver Yedidiah Louis – both are members of a group of young players who have helped put Sam Houston on the brink of winning their third Southland Conference football championship in four years.
Each found their way into the spotlight at Sam Houston in contrasting ways.
One was a shoe-in to be a starter on defense. The question was at what position. The other had to battle just to get a spot on the team as a walk-on not once, but twice.
Hall, a first-team San Antonio Express All-Area Super Team pick at Seguin High School, came off a red-shirt year in 2013 with the defensive staff debating where to play him.
“We had a tug-of-war going on between (defensive line coach) Phil Petitte and me,” Bearkat defensive end coach Rodrigue Wright said. “Phil would say ‘hey I need him on the inside’ and I would counter ‘I need him on the outside.’ That’s the kind of player P. J. is. He is big and strong enough to play inside but is athletic and quick enough to play outside.”
To Hall it didn’t matter.
“My expectations before the season were to do whatever I had to do to help the team,” the 6-1, 270 pound criminal justice major said. “I set high goals and I wanted to make sure to be one of the best no matter what position I played.”
Louis, called Yedi by his teammates, faced a different road to a starting position as a wide receiver.
Forced to evacuate New Orleans in 2005 due to Hurricane Katrina, Louis moved with his mother and two of his sisters to a brother’s house in Dallas. The family moved back to New Orleans later, but Louis eventually returned to Richardson High School where earned all-state honors for head coach Jim Ledford.
The wide receiver came to Sam Houston of his own accord in 2013 and was set to earn a scholarship as a redshirt before former SHSU head coach Willie Fritz moved to Georgia Southern.
When K. C. Keeler was hired to take over the program, Louis had to prove himself again in spring ball.
“The offense changed from running back oriented to more spread, so it worked out perfectly,” Louis said. “My mother was my motivation. She told me every day that I knew what I was doing. She made me have confidence in myself that everything would work out.”
The new coaching staff was impressed with Louis.
“Phil Longo, our offensive coordinator, insisted that Yedi deserves a scholarship,” Keeler said. “When Coach Longo puts his name on a player, that just doesn’t happen. Yedi earned it.”
Both freshman have turned out to be key factors in Sam Houston rebounding from a 1-3 start in non-conference play to a squad that is 5-1 in Southland action and can assure themselves of hoisting a league championship trophy if they finish the season with two more victories.
Louis leads the Bearkats with 45 catches for 547 yards. He stands as one of only three freshman in the FCS top 80 in pass receptions per game.
Hall ranks No. 25 in FCS tackles for losses with 17 for 62. He has averaged 5.6 tackles per game including five sacks.
The defensive end faced one last hurdle to achieve success when an injury forced him to play with his hand in a cast for the first few games of the season.
“Going into the opener at Eastern Washington, with his hand in a cast, we were only going to play P. J. in passing situations,” Wright said. “But they were moving the ball on the ground so much against us that (defensive coordinator) Mike Collins said just throw him in there and see what he can do.”
Hall got it done. In fact, he twice has been named as Southland Conference “Defensive Player of the Week” after victories over Lamar and McNeese State.
“It was a little frustrating when I couldn’t put my hands on offensive linemen like I wanted to because of the cast,” Hall said. “But now that I’ve got my hand back, I’m going pretty good.”
Louis’s success this year was remarkable as well considering the amount of talent available for the Kats at the wide receiver position including several transfers from FBS programs like TCU, Texas Tech and Baylor.
“I put my heart out on that field,” Louis said. “Everybody knows that. I try to show off my athletic abilitiy and speed and do whatever I can to help us win. I want my family to know they did a good job raising me and giving me the opportunity.”
Keeler believes either player would make an outstanding winner of the Jerry Rice award.
“Both have a lot of pride and want to be the best,” Keeler said. “They both are great players on the field and great people off the field. They’re the type of individuals that Jerry Rice was and represent this university well.”
Sam Houston closes out the regular season with a road game at Houston Baptist on Saturday, November 15, and the regular season final versus Central Arkansas at Elliott T. Bowers Stadium Saturday, November 22.